This Mesa First-Grade Teacher Hasn't Missed A Day Of School In 30 Years
Gina Ucci leaned over a first-grader named Kate who was trying to manipulate a set of chopsticks to grab a raisin from a pile of oatmeal.
“The little ones are too small,” Kate said.
The raisins are meant to be stand-ins for bugs. The chopsticks are a bird’s beak.
“You can do it,” Ucci said.
Kate finally pinched a raisin between the two sticks.
“See, you did it!” “We never give up, do we?” Ucci said. “We keep trying.”
This is one of many lessons Ucci has tried to impart to the students at Mesa’s Field Elementary since she started teaching first grade here in 1984.
She’s missed just a single day of work, for her grandfather’s funeral, and this year will mark 30 years of perfect attendance since then.
“Every day, they surprise you,” Ucci said. “They drive you crazy sometimes, but they also just make you laugh. You see the little light come on. … And so it just motivates me to keep going.”
Ucci moved from Chicago to Arizona with her family when she was a young woman.
Her dad was a business owner. Her mom, at 86, still works as a nurse. Ucci credited her upbringing as the inspiration for her attendance streak.
“If I expect my students to be here every day to learn, then I think I should have the same expectation for me — to be here, to give them my best,” Ucci said.
She always wanted to work with kids and considered becoming a pediatrician before attending ASU to study education.
“Even though I’ve taught first grade for so many years, I don’t do the same thing, the same way, all the time, because it doesn’t reach all the kids,” Ucci said.
For example, when she started teaching, students were expected to sit quietly. Their desks were lined up in straight rows.
Now Ucci arranges students’ desks in groups so they can interact with one another.
“Plus, I can listen in to what they’re saying and I know who’s getting it and who needs a little help,” Ucci said.
On a recent August day, she challenged her students to become scientists in search of the answer to the question, “Why do birds have different beaks?”
First, the students tried to pluck crackers, raisins, gummy worms and seeds from a plastic cup with a clothes-pin bird.
Ucci made the birds, asked parents to donate supplies and paid for the rest out of her own pocket.
Miraculously (to the reporter) none of the children tried to snack on the “bird food.”
Next, the students rotated through activities that represented different bird beaks. At one, they dipped a big plastic spoon into a tub of floating cereal to mimic how a pelican scoops up fish.
At another, they sucked up colored water with an eyedropper like a hummingbird would sip nectar.
“I loved that I learned about hummingbirds,” a student named Moya exclaimed. “Hummingbirds are my favorite because I got to slurp up the water. It was so easy!”
While her students explore different beaks, Ucci circled the room stopping to check in on everyone.
More than 30 years ago, Matthew Olsen was a student in Ms. Ucci’s first grade class and is happy two of his children have followed in his footsteps.
“Now that I think about it, no other teacher really stood out like that,” Matthew Olsen said.
Jennifer Olsen remembered when their son, Evan, started first grade he cried every single day on the way to school.
“Within that first week, it was a night-and-day difference. He loved going to school all of a sudden,” Jennifer Olsen said. “She is amazing at bringing the best out in my kids and making them believe that they can do anything really.”
Matthew Olsen spread out mementos from Evan’s first-grade year on the kitchen table.
“At least once a week, she would send home something that’s laminated and includes a picture of my children,” Olsen said.
Evan showed me a photo where he’s dressed as a superhero, complete with a red cape.
“It says my super name is Evan. My super age is 6, and in school I am super at listening and at home I am super at having fun,” he reads aloud.
“We were mostly always having fun and building stuff,” he said.
Fun is also what Teresa Valencia remembers from her time in Ms. Ucci’s class in the 1990s.
“I remember that she really loved cows, and she was a really great first-grade teacher,” Valencia said.
Her mom was also a teacher at Field Elementary and Valencia still keeps in touch with Ucci.
“When you’re a kid, I think seeing a teacher outside of school is just mind-blowing, that is the universe in which you know them and who they are,” Valencia said. Now, she sees Ucci as a “whole person.”
Asked about life after teaching, Ucci hesitated before answering.
“Everybody keeps asking when I’m going to retire and I say, ‘When it’s not fun anymore,’” Ucci said. “When I don’t feel like I”m making an impact.”
Until then, she’ll wake up every school day and bike to work, arriving at about 5 a.m.
Principal Scott Cumberledge confirmed she’s usually one of the first ones there in the morning and one of the last to leave in the evening.
“She is one of the strongest, most dedicated, most caring, most successful teachers that would never, ever praise herself or want an ounce of praise publicly,” Cumberledge said.
“It is very hard for me to talk about myself and think that I’m doing something special,” Ucci said. “I’m doing what I love and I’m trying to make a difference. I want to leave this world better than when I came and I hope I’m doing that.”
A Postscript From The Reporter
The day after visiting Ms. Ucci’s classroom, I received an email at 6:45 a.m. thanking me and reflecting on what we talked about.
“I have a regret that you did not get a sound byte of me saying how lucky and blessed I am that I get to share my day with our future.